Mortality and Christopher Hitchens

In his recently released book Mortality, Christopher Hitchens tells the story of how British journalist John Diamond chronicled his battle with cancer in a weekly column. Hitchens confesses like many other readers, he quietly urged him on from week to week. He says,

But after a year and more…well, a certain narrative expectation inevitably built up. Hey, 
miracle cure! Hey, I was just having you on! No neither of those would work as endings.
Diamond had to die; and he duly, correctly (in narrative terms) did. Though – how can I put this?- a stern literary critic might complain that his story lacked compactness toward the end.
Hitchens’ own story was more elegantly structured. He told it in 7 essays published in Vanity Fair and now collected posthumously in this small book.

Mortality describes his initial collapse in a New York City hotel room during a tour in support of his latest book, Hitch 22, in early June 2010, saying of the emergency responders:

I had time to wonder why they needed so many boots and helmets and so much backup equipment, but now I view the scene in retrospect I see it as a very gentle but firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.

He dislikes the use of the metaphor of battle, fight or struggle to describe what ensued after he was diagnosed with metastatic oesophageal cancer. He says

Myself I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of being a gravely endangered patient.

But sitting “while a venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you.” And yet his dispatches from the Land of Malady are full of his customary wit and irony. His wife, Carol Blue, reports in the book’s Afterward that he wrote the jottings now collected as chapter 8 in bursts of energy and enthusiasm, his computer perched on the food tray of his hospital bed. He continued to hold court whenever he was hospitalized, “making a point or hitting a punchline for his “guests”, whom he treated like “participants in his Socratic discourses”. He had always been a great raconteur, as well as a bon vivant. He had an encyclopedic knowledge and a rapier-like intelligence. And he could hold his liquor. After an 8 hour dinner, he would rise to toast the assembled motley crowd with “a stirring, spellbinding, hysterically funny twenty minutes of poetry, limerick reciting, a call to arms for a cause and jokes. ‘How good it is to be us’, he would say in his perfect voice.”

I started reading him in Vanity Fair, after many years of avoiding his work and like many others, I was immediately won over. I avoided him because he had betrayed me. For many years he had espoused causes dear to my heart, workers’ rights among them, what might be called leftwing views, but then after 9/11, he made a sharp turn right and supported the war in Iraq, believing the now disproved weapons-of-mass-destruction premise. Not to mention, he dissed Mother Teresa and rounded on Salman Rushdie, when Rushdie, under fatwa pressure, published “Why I have Embraced Islam”. I read the rebuttals that his friend Martin Amis wrote and imagined, in my innocence, that Amis was actually alienated from Hitchens. I was wrong. Amis remained his great friend, Rushdie was at Hitchens’ memorial and Mother Teresa – well that goes without saying.

Hitchens was a famous atheist, author of god is Not Great, and on his last Thanksgiving Day in November 2011, he was in my town, Toronto, debating his point of view with Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and recent convert to the Catholic Church. Hitchens arranged Thanksgiving dinner for his family and friends here and by all accounts carried the day in the debate.

His reaction to the Christopher Hitchens Day of prayer on September 20, 2011 involved wondering exactly what was being prayed for – his survival, his redemption? He examined the nature of prayer -the importuning of an omnipotent being to suspend His laws of nature for personal benefit- and found the practice specious. He noted that certain religious zealots had pronounced that his illness was God’s punishment and in short order analyzed the ill-logic and cruelty of that by citing blameless children suffering from cancer. He said there would be no deathbed conversion and told of Voltaire being badgered as he was dying to renounce the devil, whereupon the great thinker replied, “that this was no time to be making enemies”.

The best gift that Hitchens gave me, besides many good laughs, was the realization that I can listen to a point of view I don’t agree with, indeed that I might find contrary and wrongheaded although, of course, he said much that I found true.

He concluded an essay on The Great Gatsby by saying, “It remains ‘the great’ because it confronts the defeat of youth and beauty and idealism and finds the defeat unbearable and then turns to face the defeat unflinchingly”.  He died on December 15, 2011 at the age of 62. HIs unflinching voice goes on.

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It’s Your Funeral

At a church funeral, the departed person’s first or ‘Christian’ name gets mentioned often. If it happens to be yours every mention is like the bell used in meditation or the little wooden gong struck while chanting. It wakes you up.

In this case, the shared name is unusual now, having dropped out of fashion and so, no doubt, both she and I regarded it as ours alone.

I did not really know her, although I had met her several times, but I knew her son. I see him several times a week and he reminds me of my own son whom I haven’t seen in too long. His mother and I were about the same age.

My initial reaction to her sudden and unexpected death was to rush home and put my own affairs in some better order. There I was nodding along in the fond expectation of another ten years or so when her death woke me up.

By the time, I had found parking and arrived at the church, it was jammed to the rafters. I know this because that is precisely where I sat, the high last row of the balcony where I had an excellent view of the wooden arches of the vaulted ceiling as well as the high stone- edged windows above the side aisles. The organ pipes were above my head and the audio control equipment was at the end of the row.

We rose as one as the processional music began. I was familiar with the order of progress: cross, clergy-four of them, choir, coffin and pallbearers. As a child, I had been part of the white robed choir. I recognized the rank of the clergy by their robes and I still remembered not only the melodies but also the words of the Anglican service. (Episcopalian, it would be called in the U.S.) And this church like the church where I sang was high Anglican.

“More Catholic than the Catholics,” my neighbour whispered.

It was an altogether beautiful experience musically and visually. The Bible readings were chosen to contradict death’s power and even included the well known line, “Death where is thy sting?” And the tribute was full of loving detail about my name sake’s life. Almost the entire congregation took communion, although I remained seated with two lapsed Catholics and a Jew.

I was struck by two things. One of them was that our lives had been very different. She had gone to the same church for probably her whole life and that meant that she had lived near it all her life. I had had over twenty addresses and I stopped going to church as a young mother. She had drawn hundreds of people to mourn her passing. Our family is given to memorials at a convenient date some time after cremation, modest gatherings, but someone is sure to bring a guitar.

The other thing that struck me was how my perspective had changed. When I was a church-goer and heard reference to God the Father, I accepted that a paternal eminence existed capable of granting protection and grace. Indeed He had graciously sent his only begotten son to ransom our souls. As I sat and listened, I was able to see this through the lens of the indwelling divinity I now understood. ‘Salvation’ has become more personal for me of late. That insight, which I cannot apparently articulate, made me happy.

I am very grateful to my name sake and wish her well on her journey. Through her, I got to have a funeral full of pomp and ceremony and exquisite beauty.

Easter/Passover and Journal 108

Every Easter, my mother outfitted me in new clothes, a coat she had made, a new hat, new shoes. Not to do so, in spite of our poverty, would have been shameful. Eventually, this led to a good deal of work as the family expanded. The clothes were to be worn to church of course. Today she would have shuffled us off to Walmart no doubt, but the closest she could get to that bazaar of economic necessity was the catalogue. That’s where the hat and shoes came from.

For Easter breakfast, she would fry up a dozen eggs and my father would tackle the lot.  The hens had started laying again by then, whether Easter was early or late.

Quaint customs that indicate advanced age.

We moved away from that rural community and found ourselves more or less lost in a city. The rest of the family gave church up, but I kept on, partly because they didn’t. I sang in the children’s choir in a long black skirt and a brilliant white surplus that had to be washed and ironed far too often. On Good Friday, I went to the somber morning service and on Easter Sunday, I rejoiced at all three services, Matins at 8 a.m., Eucharist at 11 and Evensong at 7. I found the experience beautiful, calming and comforting. Little by little, I found myself thoroughly assimilating the traditions of the “high” Anglican church I attended.

At a certain point, I stopped attending church. It was shortly after my children were born and baptized. My husband had started tutoring on Sunday morning and could no longer do childcare.

Yet the habits of that background persisted: Good Friday inevitably lead me to self-examination and grief over my shortcomings, while Easter Sunday was filled with light and grace.

Time moved on. The family grew, broke in pieces, reformed, grew again.

Some years, I found myself at a table where we were asked,”How is this night different from all other nights? I listened to the Passover story, which was not entirely new to a Bible reader after all, but now I was seeing it from inside, so to speak. And eating different food.

One year, when I was on my own, I read Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ in which he documents the parallels between Christ and the pagan sun gods to urge us to regard the story in a more metaphorical way. Toward the end of the book, he mused that we will never be more dead than we are now. By that, he meant here in what we call life, we are so thoroughly emersed in the material world that we are deeply alienated from our spiritual selves.

This is a time when we instinctively ponder questions of death and resurrection if only because nature is modeling the latter. (Well, not the poor magnolias here in TO. They got carried away by early March warmth, burst into bud and then got frozen by a cold night. The fruit trees ,however, are setting a blooming example.)

I don’t consider myself an Anglican nor even a Christian at this point, much as I respect the tradition. Buddhism and Taoism also seem to have much to teach, as does Rumi, the great 13th century Sufi poet. But the Easter child lurks within and wants the holiday honored.

This year, oh my goodness, the odd bits of family we can still gather has chosen to gather on Friday. A party on Good Friday! What would Aunt Mae say? Actually, she’d probably say she wouldn’t mind a bit of that brandy and settle down to enjoy herself.

So this leaves me rattling around by myself on the big day. What to do? Last year, journal 108 tells me I went for a walk down through the park to the river and then cooked up a rack of lamb and asparagus. This year, I will take myself out in my best duds to my favorite restaurant for an early dinner.

And eat chocolate.